I am on the road again. I will be away from March 19-March 28. I am heading to Flagstaff, Arizona to visit my son Seth and his family. They are an amazing group of people and I stand in awe of them. Not only are they smart and beautiful, but they are amazing in so many ways. The thing that impresses me the most (because I am so different) is their athletic ability. Seth and Melissa are both amazing mountain bikers and skiers, and the kids excel at both. Cole had a bad fall while mountain biking and has had surgery on his shoulder, so skiing is out for him this year. Aliza is tearing up the mountains all over the west and is the leading racer in her age group in the Southwest. Seth and Mel are taking Aliza to Taos next weekend to race and I will stay behind and let Cole entertain me. Ruth and Sydney will be filling in for me, and Jessica will be here Sundays. The store will be closed just two days, March 19 and 20. I’ll see you when I return!
As you know, I love reading. Some books I enjoy just for the skill a writer shows in her work, sometimes because a story is so engaging, and some just because it makes me think and reevaluate my life. The best books do all three. I’ve read two books recently that I have loved.
The first book, Women Rowing North, by Mary Pipher, was recommended by a customer who is reading it aloud with her husband and said it was a must-read. Pipher is a therapist who wrote a powerful book called Reviving Ophelia some time ago. That book was about adolescent girls and how they “go underground” when they are in their preteens. They hide their intelligence and abilities so as to blend in and not scare off the boys. This current book is about women in their later years, but it has relevance for older men too.
Once we get into our sixties and later women enter a stage of life characterized by much loss. We lose physical abilities, we lose loved ones, we often lose our careers, and we lose our ability to retrieve our memories. Our eyesight and hearing are diminished. Our health deteriorates and we sometimes find ourselves having to care for a partner or an aged parent. For many people, all this loss can send them spiraling downward into depression and feelings of loss of identity.
The flip side of this loss is the opportunities this phase of life can bring. We are now freer of the limitations a career and young families bring, and for the first time we are free to develop new sides of ourselves. We can manage our time with more ease and can do things we never had time for before.
The key to enjoying this period of our lives, Pipher says, is mainly in attitude. We have the choice of wallowing in self-pity or sadness or reaching out and finding ways to remain a vital part of our communities. We must find a way to do something we consider meaningful, and with the increase of free time, we can make a difference for nonprofits or political organizations. We can reinvent ourselves. I have found the period since starting Social Security fun and rewarding as I took a leap and opened Chifferobe. I had always wanted to have a shop, but had neither the time nor the financial freedom to do so. Freed from the constraints of teaching, I have enjoyed managing my time, buying and selling beautiful things, and socializing with old and new friends. I have no papers to grade, I can read what I want to, and don’t have to force kids to do things they don’t want to do.
The other book I just read is Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, author of another book I loved, Olive Kittredge. Strout is such a good writer! In this book a group of people marginally connected to each other tell their stories. The stories are woven together with gossamer threads, and the writing makes the reader feel as if she is in the room with the characters, but with Strout’s expanded sense of observation. She brushes up against the tragedies in each of their lives, but doesn’t ever get maudlin or even explicit. The reader instead inhabits each of the characters and breathes along with them, feeling what they must feel. She uses physical description to show the characters’ behavior, never telling us what to feel.
The characters in the novel have all experienced extreme poverty, humiliation, abuse, or trauma. We learn more about the Barton family (another book by Strout is My Name is Lucy Barton) from the perspective of several other characters as well as from the siblings themselves. We know about their extreme poverty and shame, and how they had to dig in dumpsters for food. We know that their father was an angry, troubled man, and we know a little about the mother, who was much harsher than the father. The truth about the parents is never described in detail, but anecdotes show us the tip of the iceberg. Vicky Barton reminds her sister, Lucy, who took off after high school and has become a successful writer in New York, that their mother punished Vicky for crying by cutting all her clothes to pieces. The mother was a seamstress and afterward sewed the clothes back together but made them look even more like rags. We bring our own pain to these characters and find ourselves suffering all the more.
Finally, though, each of the characters in this novel finds a way to survive and some to even thrive despite what has happened to them. They learn to open up to someone close to them, they find a sympathetic partner, or they learn to accept themselves as they are. All of them grow, which is something we all wish for ourselves, especially in post-middle age.
This resilience is what stands out for me in both books. All of us are damaged goods, some more than others, and sometimes just getting older is enough to send us into depression. Resilience is essential as we go through hard times and hope that our lives and those of those we love will get easier. The other lesson is learning to let go of expectations about other people. I barely know what to expect from myself, and always get disappointed when I think I know how things are supposed to turn out.